“Did you know that meltdowns are involuntary acts most often caused by overstimulation and are outside the control of the person in question? Meltdowns should not be confused with tantrums, which are willful acts meant to manipulate.” -Lost and Tired (www.lostandtired.com)
My son has a wonderful, sunny disposition. He has a kind and caring heart. He has an unadulterated joy that emanates from him as he dances through life. He has a vivid imagination and he joyfully accepts the revolving role as the main character of his fantasy world every single day. It is captivating to watch. However, he also weathers many emotional storms that can quickly dampen that sunny personality. Tears flow easily with Ben, often for seemingly no reason. But, make no mistake, there is always a reason. He cries when life becomes overwhelming. He when cries too much is going on around him and he just can’t handle it any more. He cries when plans change and things that he expected and needed to happen don’t happen. Normally his tears come and go quickly. Ben has learned to recognize his feelings. When he starts to become sad or upset, he knows how take action and calm down. However, there are times when disappointment is too great, or when his sensory systems overwhelm him, and a meltdown occurs. In those moments when my son’s body succumbs to his emotions, I try to do everything I can as a parent to help him. I try to calm, distract, and soothe. I give him a safe space to work through his feelings. At the end of an episode, I am exhausted and relieved that the ordeal is over. It is human nature to view the world through our own perspective, but the other day I had the rare opportunity to view the world through Ben’s.
Let’s back up to two afternoons ago. Ben has been taking private swimming lessons at the local YMCA. Since we live in the Sunshine State, the pool is outdoors. The first two lessons went very smoothly. Ben’s swimming teacher is a sweet girl who is working towards her master’s degree in Special Education. She has that calm, easy personality that makes her a perfect match for Ben. She has gone out of her way to make him feel comfortable in the water, and he has enjoyed his time with her. However, Ben’s greatest challenge is that he does not want to put his face under the water. At the end of the second class, she suggested that we try swimming goggles. So, over the weekend, we purchased the goggles, and Ben eagerly anticipated his next class. He loves trying out new gadgets and gear. Miss E had even given him some shells that he would get to inspect under the water when he returned. He was stoked.
And then, as often happens in Florida, the afternoon storm clouds rolled in. As I drove across town from school to the Y, I watched with concern as the dark clouds slowly crept closer from the east.
“Ben,” I warned him, “Swimming class might be cancelled today.”
“Why?” he asked, as he often does.
“Because it may rain,” I replied simply.
“Why?” he asked again.
“It’s not safe to swim in the water when it rains and there is thunder,” I explained.
“No rain,” he replied confidently.
As we pulled into the parking lot, I breathed a sigh of relief because the immediate area looked sunny and clear. The rain clouds were still a safe distance away. After glancing at the radar on my smart phone, I estimated that we had just enough time to squeeze in the lesson before the storm hit. We had even arrived a few minutes early. We squeezed into a plastic chair on the back wall and watched the swimmers splash in the water as we waited for his teacher. Ben was clearly ready to get in the water and kept trying to run towards the pool’s edge, so I was distracted and didn’t really notice that all the swimmers were clearing the pool area. I guess I just thought that classes were ending for the hour.
Then, I saw Miss E approaching us, her face clearly lined with worry. She explained that the lifeguards had heard thunder, and once thunder or lightning are observed in the vicinity, then the pool has to be vacated for 15 minutes until they are cleared to enter the water again. She asked if we wanted to wait and see what would happen or if we wanted to reschedule the lesson. I looked at my eager son, the sunny skies overhead, and decided to chance it. “Let’s give it 15 minutes and see what happens.”
I explained to Ben that he would have to be patient and we would have to wait a little longer for swimming class. And, miraculously, he was patient. He sat happily next to his coach and answered her questions about school, about his new goggles, and about the movie Frozen. He played with his shells and his gazed straight ahead at the pool. The 15 minutes had just about ended, and I thought we were in the clear. Suddenly, thunder rumbled again and everyone groaned. I knew there was no sense prolonging the inevitable. Miss E and I agreed to try again tomorrow.
Ben watched his coach wave goodbye to him and walk away. He looked at the blue skies, the empty pool, and I watch his eyes squinch shut as he struggled to keep composure.
“I want to SWIM!” he insisted as the tears began to pour. I knew that there would be no explaining this, no rationalizing the reasons why. Today was supposed to be swimming day, and it was not happening.
“I’m crying,” he said, as the tears fell of their own accord. I used all the techniques in my power to guide him away from the pool and coax him to the car. I knew that the sooner we left, the easier it would be for him to put this episode behind him.
“How about we go to dinner instead?” I coaxed. “We could meet Daddy somewhere?” Usually distraction helps, but today he wasn’t having it. He was gone. He had managed to keep it together through the long wait over the weekend for this lesson, and then these extra minutes poolside, as he had patiently watched the water as the clock ticked down. Now, he just could not understand why he could not swim, when there was no rain, no dark clouds, and it was his turn. It was just too much to take.
As we drove home, I soothed him, “I know you are sad. It’s okay to cry. I understand that you wanted to swim.”
What he said next surprised me. Through his broken sobs, he managed to get out, “I don’t like to cry, Mommy. I don’t want tears.”
Those words were like a punch in the stomach. They took my breath away. For the first time, I really stopped and considered the emotional toll that these meltdowns must have on him. As much as I have read about the autistic meltdown being outside of the person’s control, I think I believed on some level that he was using his tears to control and manipulate the situation, as is often the case in tantrums that young children have. But through his words, he was able to express just how much he hates being out of control, being incapable of stopping those strong emotions that well up inside him.
As I was still trying to process his words, Ben added this, in a quiet, trembling voice, “Sorry I cried.”
I don’t remember my exact response to his words, but I know I told him that I understood why he cried, and it was okay.
As I think back on it now, this is what I wish I would have said to him.
“You don’t ever need to be sorry you cried. Crying is a very real response to the emotions that you feel. Society will tell you that real men don’t cry. They will tell you to hold your feelings inside and to ‘suck it up’. People may tell you that some things are a big deal and some things are a little deal, and that you shouldn’t cry about the little things. What they don’t understand is, those 'little things' are huge to you. They don’t know all of the events that have led up to the moment when you could not keep the tears inside any longer. They don’t know that this ‘little thing’ may be have been the last straw for you. And, I want you to know, that your perspective is just as valid as theirs. Your emotions are very real, and as your Mommy I will help you to find the words to express your emotions and give you strategies to help you feel calm and regulated, but there will be times when you will reach the point where you will need to cry. When this happens, you never need to be sorry for your tears. The fact that you showed enough compassion in that moment to think about how your mommy may have felt shows a caring heart. You knew that you had lost control and you were sorry for it. You didn’t want the tears to come but they did. That has to be very, very frustrating for you. And, as frustrating as it is to lose control, I want you to know that your mommy will always be here for you.”
A meltdown is very, very different from a typical childhood tantrum. If you see one happening at the grocery store, the mall, or at your YMCA pool, I ask you to pause before judging the child or the parent in that situation. You may be seeing a child at a time when he is at his most vulnerable and exposed- a time when he has lost all control. And remember, he doesn’t enjoy experiencing that loss of control any more than you like seeing and hearing it. By showing kindness and compassion rather than coldness and judgment, you are showing that child and parent that you see their struggle and you understand. And in a world that’s full of enough challenge, a little kindness can go a long way.